Continuity is a bitch. It’s the reason that almost every Marvel comic devotes space to explaining where the characters are in the story. It’s the reason that DC keeps having crisis after crisis to make their stories more approachable for new readers. It’s the reason Marvel launched a whole new line of Ultimate comics for readers who hadn’t been keeping up with Spider-Man’s personal life for 30 years. Creating a shared universe of characters is great fun for die hard fans and the crossover events that touch every title in a given universe are cash cows, but making continuity work in the film world may be a tougher challenge. Jon Favreau seems to be the first person pointing this out with his hesitant remarks about an Iron Man sequel that would exist in a post-Avengers landscape.
What Favreau has hit on is an essential difference in the way that comics and movies are made. Marvel has an editorial team that powwows to set the direction for their whole line of books for years at a time. They may not hash out specific details in those sessions, but they do have to agree that Hulk is going to go through this arc and Captain America is going to go through that one and everyone is going to meet up to help out Thor by the end of the summer. The writers then go off to write their stories and there’s surely some creative freedom to work within that editorial framework, but in the end, all of the points have to meet up or the universe gets out of whack. Marvel as a comic book company has so many pieces to coordinate that the creative process necessarily entails wide-scale collaboration coupled with centralized editorial control. You might say that a single movie gets produced in the same way, with a producer and director organizing all of the disparate creative talent, but multiple movies from multiple creative teams spanning years of work–that’s something altogether different.
As Marvel Studios works to connect their films to some kind of global continuity, the prospect for the fans and ticket-buyers is exciting. Hell, I’ve been hoping to see glimpses of a larger world in all of the Marvel movies since X2. But the more the Marvel film universe becomes a reality and the movies get connected, the less control the writers and directors will have over their own work, and that might rub talented creative types the wrong way.
Consider the creative process of most A-List directors and you’ll notice that they often work with particular writers, cinematographers, composers, and casting directors. They might even like to work with the same actors from one project to the next, or the same costume designers or visual effects studios. You can spot a Coen Brothers movie from a Christopher Nolan movie from a Michael Mann movie and the reason is that those directors have specific sensibilities when it comes to the other talent around them. Now imagine the person who steps up to direct an Avengers movie. The main actors have all been cast, the costumes have been designed, the motivations have been laid out, even the musical themes have all been written. On top of that, all of the characters coming into an Avengers movie are going to have a specific starting point from their other respective solo films, and they are all going to wind up at a specific ending point as dictated by Marvel editorial. That doesn’t sound like a really attractive job for a creative person–that sounds like a task for a journeyman.
The Harry Potter films might provide a good model for what a multi-film universe can look like, and if so, that’s a little disappointing. That series has seen four different directors tackle the source material with the same kinds of restrictions that face potential Marvel Studios directors. While all of the Potter films have been fine and watchable, there’s not really a classic among them. Goblet of Fire is probably my favorite of the Potter films, but I can’t sense anything about Mike Newell from it other than the fact that he’s capable of telling a story. Alfonso Cuaron was an interesting left-field choice for Prisoner of Azkaban, but taken in the context of the series now, that movie doesn’t stand out as a particularly useful showcase for what the director of Children of Men can do. The Potter films are an achievement in their homogeneity–they look and feel seamlessly connected through the years, but homogeneity is not what makes great movies.
Unlike in the Potter universe, Marvel Studios has let each film maker spin his own take on the Marvel characters so far. The Hulk, Punisher, and Iron Man films haven’t adapted specific stories from the comics as much as they have borrowed bits and pieces from all over Marvel history to create new stories–the way the comics themselves do from time to time when they are reimagined by new creative teams. But once these properties start to collide, what happened in Iron Man 2 has meaning for what can happen in Hulk 3 and so on. In the comic world, different artists can draw Hawkeye differently at different points in time, but when that character is jumping from one book to the next in some sort of crossover, he’s got to look and feel more-or-less the same. For the Marvel movies to work without looking cheap, those surface details are going to matter.
But what will matter even more than the design of Iron Man’s armor or the actor who plays Bruce Banner are the stories. My biggest beef with Iron Man 2 is that it serves no purpose for its title character other than to exist as ‘the continuing exploits of…’ If Marvel Studios can find a reason for the Avengers to assemble other than the fact that such a thing would be cool, then we might be on to something. So far S.H.I.E.L.D. has gone around recruiting, but they’ve not explained why a team of super heroes would be needed. Love or hate Sam Raimi’s work on Spider-Man, at least he approached each movie as a way to tell some story about Peter Parker. The villains and the accoutrements in Raimi’s films were secondary to Peter’s character arc, but I’m not so sure that pushing all of these characters together will work in quite the same way.
Ultimately, the idea of a movie where Iron Man meets the Hulk is probably too fun to leave alone, and I’m glad we’ll be seeing that shortly. Still, I can’t help but feel that we are headed for a more homogenized and committee-written slate of films that are beholden to continuity in all of the ways that make continuity so maddening. If the guiding principle behind the films turns from “lets wow the audience” to “let’s just not mess this up,” we could be in store for a lot of ho hum summer movies. With the Avengers, we might get to see a comic book film on a gigantic scale, but if its not executed with an artist’s touch we’ll wind up with something more like the Narnia films than the Lord of the Rings. I suppose that in the next few years as we watch Thor, Captain